Strange Christmas Traditions

As we draw near to the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ it is time to reflect on some Strange Christmas Traditions from other places.  I am not talking about what we do in our own homes, although I could share stories of being locked in my room waiting to open gifts, but rather interesting things that happen in other places.

Scotland is an interesting mix of religious and secular traditions.  Prior to the Reformation making its way to Scotland the celebration of Yuletide and Christmas were done together in a long celebration that lasted until after the New Year.  The name comes from the Scandinavians, for whom ‘Yultid’ celebrated during twelfth month, being the twelfth name of Odin, who was supposed to come to earth in December, disguised in a hooded cloak. He would sit awhile at the firesides listening to the people, and where there was want he left a gift of bread or coins.

Nollaig Beag, or Little Christmas was the celebration of the Birth of Christ and was celebrated not with parties but in a very solemn way.  The festivities would being a few days later and spill over in to the New Year or the Twelfth Night.  The French often called Christmas ‘Homme est né’, Man is Born, and some believe this is the root of the word ‘Hogmanay’ the celebration of the New Year.

With the Reformation almost all Christmas celebrations were banned and people were even fined for celebrating the feast.  Bakers who would make the traditional Yuelbreads were fined and in 1638 the General Assembly in Edinburgh tried to abolish Yuletide.  The restoration of the Monarchy brought back the celebration of Christmas although it was still frowned upon by the Kirk.  The celebration remained alive in the High Church and among the Roman Catholic population.

So here are some interesting tradition from Scotland:

Black Bun. Originally Twelfth Night Cake. It is a very rich fruit cake, almost solid with fruit, almonds, spices and the ingredients are bound together with plenty of Whisky. The stiff mixture is put into a cake tin lined with a rich short pastry and baked.

This takes the place of the even more ancient Sun Cakes. A legacy from Scotland’s close associations with Scandinavia. Sun cakes were baked with a hole in the centre and symmetrical lines around, representing the rays of the Sun. This pattern is now found on the modern Scottish Shortbread, and has been misidentified as convenient slices marked onto the shortbread!

Bees leave hives Xmas Morn. There is an old belief that early on Christmas Morning all bees will leave their hives, swarm, and then return. Many old Scots tell tales of having witnessed this happening, though no-one can explain why. One explanation is that bees get curious about their surroundings, and if there is unexpected activity they will want to check it out to see if there is any danger. As people were often up and about on Christmas night observing various traditions, or just returning from the night services, the bees would sense the disturbance and come out to see what was going on.

Divination customs – Ashes, Bull, Cailleach

There are a number of ancient divination customs associated with Scottish Christmas tradition. One involves checking the cold ashes the morning after the Christmas fire. A foot shape facing the door was said to be foretelling a death in the family, while a foot facing into the room meant a new arrival.

Another was the ceremonial burning of Old Winter, the Cailleach. A piece of wood was carved roughly to represent the face of an old woman, then named as the Spirit of Winter, the Cailleach. This was placed onto a good fire to burn away, and all the family gathered had to watch to the end. The burning symbolised the ending of all the bad luck and enmities etc of the old year, with a fresh start.

The Candlemas Bull was in reality a cloud. It was believed that a bull would cross the sky in the form of a cloud, early on the morning on Candlemas, February 2nd. From its appearance people would divine. An East travelling cloud foretold a good year, south meant a poor grain year, but if it faced to the west the year would be poor. This custom was a remnant of the ancient Mithraiac religion, when the Bull-god would come at the start of Spring to warn of the year the farmers could expect.


All of the Celtic countries have a similar custom of lighting a candle at Christmastime to light the way of a stranger. (See LIGHT IN THE WINDOW IRISH CUSTOMS)

In Scotland was the Oidche Choinnle, or Night of Candles. Candles were placed in every window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve and First Footers on New Years Eve. Shopkeepers gave their customers Yule Candles as a symbol of goodwill wishing them a ‘Fire to warm you by, and a light to guide you’.


It was and still is the custom for a stranger to enter the house after midnight on New Years Eve/Day. There were taboos about the luck such a stranger would bring, especially in the days of hospitality to travelling strangers. A fair haired visitor was considered bad luck in most areas, partly due to the in-fighting between the dark scots and the fair Norse invaders. However, in Christian times, a fair haired man was considered very lucky providing his name was Andrew! Because St Andrew is the Patron Saint of Scotland. A woman is considered taboo still in many areas!

The Firstfooter must make an offering, a HANDSEL. This can be food, drink or fuel for the fire. The ritual which have grown up around this custom are many. An offering of food or drink must be accepted by sharing it with everyone present, including the visitor. Fuel, must be placed onto the fire by the visitor with the words ‘A Good New Year to one and all and many may you see’. In todays often fireless society the fuel is usually presented as a polished piece of coal, or wood which can be preserved for the year as an ornament.

Sayings eg : Is blianach Nollaid gun sneachd – Christmas without snow is poor fare.


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